As Holocaust survivors age, Jews using old, new ways to keep memories alive

April 07, 1991|By Diane Winston | Diane Winston,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- The bright and bouncy baby was named Ziv which, in Hebrew, means clear and shining light. At the child's circumcision, Rabbi Irving Greenberg asked why the unusual name had been chosen.

"The grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, said he had a younger sister who was 5 when his family hid from the Nazis," recalled Rabbi Greenberg, head of the National Jewish Center for Leadership and Learning here. "The sister was too young to hide in the forest, so they placed her in the home of a sympathetic farmer.

"Someone informed on the farmer and soldiers stormed his house. The girl was killed on the spot. That was 51 years ago. Her name was Clara -- which means light.

"You may think the killers won, but her brother remembered. Now this new child will carry her name."

Now, more than 50 years since World War II -- at a time when many survivors, like Ziv's grandfather, are growing old -- there is a mounting urgency to safeguard the memory of the Holocaust. For eons, Jews honored the dead by recalling their good deeds (( and by naming their children for them. But when 6 million died in the Holocaust -- the systematic Nazi extermination of European Jewry from 1933 to 1945 -- the list of names was too long, the horror too raw to simply fall back on the old ways.

Today's Jews are making use of the old ways and finding new ways, too, to remember the 6 million. In more than 100 communities nationwide, there are Holocaust monuments, memorials and research centers. There are oral history collections, survivors' groups and Holocaust studies courses. Moreover, there are yearly public commemorations.

Yom Ha'Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is celebrated April 11 worldwide by those who wish to honor the heroes and martyrs of World War II. In the United States, during the Days of Remembrance, April 7 to 14, thousands of commemorations will be held in schools, synagogues and civic centers.

But even as these memorials occur, a haunting slew of questions arises: How will the survivors' legacy be maintained? Is the memory of the Holocaust best served by costly museums now under construction in New York, Washington and Los Angeles? Are American Jews in danger of making the Holocaust the focus of their communal life?

"The Holocaust should not overshadow everything else," said Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose works recount memories of the Nazi devastation. "There is a danger of us becoming a morbid generation."

Mr. Wiesel helped focus Americans' attention on the Holocaust -- as did the televised trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1963 and Israel's Six-Day War in 1967. American Jews began to see the past in a continuum with the present: Yesterday's victims were today's warriors.

By the 1970s, campuses had introduced Holocaust studies; Holocaust memorials had sprung up in scores of communities and a television miniseries, "The Holocaust," had been aired.

The survivors themselves were the strongest advocates for preserving the past.

"The people who have built the centers and who have been the driving force behind them are the survivors," said Rabbi Keith Stern, president-elect of the Dallas Memorial Center for Holocaust Studies. "In Dallas, it was the survivors who said, 'We have a promise to keep.' "

That promise takes on the coloring of the country the survivors call home, noted Judith Miller in her recent book, "One by One by One."

"Americans are far removed, morally and geographically, from the scene of the genocide," wrote Ms. Miller, a journalist for the New York Times. "While this distance has enabled many American Jews to confront the Holocaust, for many it has become an obsession. It is they who have been most enraged by the efforts to erase or alter the memory of what happened.

"They have a practical stake in keeping memory of the Holocaust alive, as a way of maintaining American support for Israel and as a talisman in fighting discrimination against themselves and other minorities."

The commingling of Holocaust memories and American themes is graphically illustrated by three new museums. These museums view the Holocaust refracted through an American lens.

"The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., looks at the Holocaust on behalf of all Americans. The Holocaust becomes a denial of human rights, something which happened in a faraway land from which survivors would escape to this land of liberty," said Lawrence Young, professor of English and Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Dr. Young continued: "The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York wants to put the Holocaust in a larger Jewish context, since New York has the largest Jewish community in the world. It looks at the European Jewish community which was lost in the war, Israel and the American Jewish community which flourished after the war."

In Los Angeles, Beit Hashoah-Museum of Tolerance is being built by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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